International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Past President's Column

Posted 1 October 2001 in StressPoints by John Wilson

This is the second in a series of columns written by ISTSS past presidents. John Wilson, PhD, an internationally recognized expert in posttraumatic stress disorders, is a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University. He is author of various books on PTSD, including Assessing Psychological Trauma and PTSD (with Terence Keane), The International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (with Beverly Raphael) and Psychological Debriefing. He was the society's president from 1987 to 1988.

Assuming responsibilities as the second president of ISTSS was a pleasure and a challenge. Prior to the founding of the society, Charles Figley and I had collaborated for a decade on many projects primarily concerned with Vietnam veterans, and we shared a vision for the development of an organization dedicated to traumatic stress studies. In 1985, a small group of founders met in Atlanta and gave birth to the society. It was an exciting time, to say the least, and creative energy flowed.

When Figley passed the baton to me, the society was in its infancy. Many organizational tasks needed attending and incorporated into the bylaws and management process. After the 1987 annual meeting in Baltimore, we faced severe financial difficulties and found our survival as an organization in danger. Fortunately, a grant from the Vietnam Veteran Foundation allowed for financial solvency.

During that same period, the Journal of Traumatic Stress (JTS) was created, and the executive board approved it to be the society's scientific journal. New initiatives were being created, and there was a growing call for international membership and cooperation. To me, it was clear that the society was soon to become international in mission and function because the events creating trauma and PTSD are worldwide, and good research was being conducted in many countries.

In my tenure as president, the family-like atmosphere of the society was teeming with energy, enthusiasm and ideas about our mission and pressing priorities. Yes, there were periods of rancor, conflict and dysfunction, which were all part of the organizational growth process. Issues around education, training, standards of care, diversity of membership, and national and international meeting locations were resolved. Committees had to be created, such as the editorial board of JTS, the program committee, the awards committee, and so forth.

There was no stopping the momentum of the society as a form of social movement centered on understanding trauma and PTSD. The legacy of the 20th century was undeniably an era of trauma punctuated by wars, disasters, political oppression and terrorism, genocide, and many other forms of abuse and traumatic stress. There was an unshakable belief that the society would spearhead new directions of research and clinical and social innovations. There also was a sense that the society would be a forum for exchange of ideas at the annual meeting.

I felt honored and privileged to serve the society. To this day, the society feels like a comfortable home with many good friends and decent people from all parts of the globe. At the time, however, I saw my role as one of building the infrastructure and nurturing those who would succeed in future leadership roles such as president or members of the executive board. I also saw looming on the horizon a dissatisfaction and descension, especially among minorities and nonacademic members of the society. I wondered how the society would address these issues to keep from losing valuable members. In a similar way, we began to consider how ISTSS could cooperate or merge with similar organizations, such as ISSD. At the time, members opposed such ideas, and yet it seemed important to consider them in organizational development.

Looking back, it is satisfying to see how the ISTSS family grew up during the past 16 years. While not quite middle age, the society's maturity is beginning to show, and I am enjoying being a grandfather. Finally, to paraphrase from Star Trek, "Warp speed, and on to the next galaxy."